Heroes: the Army
"...Four of us let loose with a barrage of German smoke and percussion grenades as well as rifle fire down the face of a hill away from but in the vicinity of where the supply troops were resting. General pandemonium broke out. The supply guys panicked and went screaming and diving in every direction. It was really quite funny..."
Joseph Salzano Image Circa November 1945
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: 8th Infantry Division,
13th Infantry Regiment
- Dates: 1940 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Birth Year: 1922
- Entered Service: New York, NY
"In combat, being under enemy fire can best be described as being placed in a railroad marshaling yard. You are standing on one side facing the row upon row of tracks in front of you. You are then blindfolded and ordered to slowly walk across the busy tracks. The not knowing if and when one of those moving trains will hit you as you slowly proceed across is a little like facing enemy fire."
Survivor of the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest,
13th Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division
Joseph Salzano Letter - September 10, 1999:
From: Joseph Salzano
To: John McBurney
Your letter of August 16th was received. I was pleased to hear from you. There aren't a great many left from that awful era who remember those difficult times in our lives, and those of the Germans that opposed us.
As I indicated in our phone conversation I served as a merchant seaman at the beginning of the Second World War. Job opportunities for teenagers at that time were scarce, however, I was able to secure work on Norwegian and American Merchant Marine ships. I spent a few years in the merchant marine. One particular incident convinced me that I should seek to change my line of work. I served on board the SS Dorchester which was a merchant ship that had been converted to troop transport. The ship was staffed by four chaplains, very decent and honorable people, one Protestant, two Catholic and one Jewish. During my last voyage on the Dorchester we came under German submarine torpedo attack in the Davies Straight off the Newfoundland coast. Canadian Corvettes and U.S. Coast Guard vessel went on the attack dropping depth charge salvos driving off the German submarine. There was general confusion on board and I had no life jacket. I decided at that moment to seek an alternate means of income joining the US Army upon reaching port in New York. On her very next voyage the Dorchester was sunk by German torpedo. Due to the lack of life jackets, which I had witnessed on my prior voyage, there was great loss of life. The four chaplains on board the Dorchester heroically gave their life jackets to our soldiers, held hands and went down with the ship. The Dorchester was sunk by U-223 commanded by Karl Jurgan Wachter, 673 lives were lost. While I escaped the fate of the Dorchester I had no idea at the time what severe challenges lay ahead of me.
I performed basic training in South Carolina and was ultimately assigned to the Eighth Infantry Division, Thirteenth Regiment. We proceeded to Ireland for staging and additional training for the invasion of Europe. During this period I, along with several others were detached to work with units in Scotland and England engaged in the maritime transportation of supplies. It was initially with this unit that I landed in France. During our journey to France the craft I was in was misnavigated down the coast close to German held positions on the Channel islands. Our first fire was during this period where we came under intense 20MM cannon fire. Some of the craft with us were subsequently sunk with loss of life and some of the survivors were in the water for up to three days. We landed in Normandy on Utah beach on July fourth and were soon engaged in combat action.
My recollections of France were that the fields were littered with dead animals, particularly cows and military horses as well as German soldiers. They were literally everywhere, the bloated cows, along with the smell of death and the incessant presence of large flies. There were huge craters from the bombardments, many of which were so large it would have been hard to crawl out of if a person fell in and of course the many hedge rows. I recall some friends and I visiting St. Lo and Bayeaux. There was nothing but complete rubble everywhere. We didn't know how the German units could have possibly survived the pounding they received. I was appalled at the large number of equipment losses. Tanks and all manner of equipment from both sides were strewn across the area with the consequent destruction and loss of human life.
Often people will ask where we were at a particular moment in time or what memorable experiences can be recalled. This can be difficult as during this period time had little relevance. One day seemed to merge into another. We were driven and pushed under difficult conditions, getting little sleep causing extreme fatigue. Basic things like sleep were more important than knowing exactly where we were. Poor food and a general hesitancy to eat when it was available for fear of a stomach wound in combat contributed to our exhaustion. We lived in constant worry of land mines. We had plenty of opportunity to see the considerable destruction they could inflict. On one occasion it was necessary for me to go get our reserve units and I was so weighed down with ammo that when I endeavored to cross a small creek I fell in and emerged soaking wet and then had to climb a hill which made my fatigue even worse.
After taking an objective it was not unusual to be advised that another tactic could have been used more successfully by someone not with us at the time.
We were never really trusting when advised that there would not be a problem in the next action, especially when the chaplain and his assistant would visit us with their small field organ. We figured he knew more than we did and was preparing to help us get into heaven. ON occasion we would be visited by an Army band and it always struck me as odd that they would play a Straus Waltz.
Our youthful curiosity sometimes led us to do things, that in retrospect, appear less than wise. For instance, one time in France we heard that the Germans had thrown some boxes in a stream. We decided to attempt to retrieve the boxes on the presumption that they must contain something of significant value. I happened to locate a German anti-tank device with a strong magnet at the end. It looked somewhat like a toilet plunger. I thought perhaps it was some sort of mine detection device and didn't understand its true use. I banged it against a rock in order to retrieve the magnet in hopes of dangling the magnet into the stream to recover the German boxes, which we understood to be metal containers. Fortunately, I stopped before it exploded and was very relieved after discovering what it was that I hadn't detonated the device.
On occasion we would test German weapons. We were surprised that some of the German ordinance included wooden bullets. There was a general enmity between the combat soldier, who faced death at every turn, and rear echelon troops who, from our vantage point, had a better time of it. The last thing we wanted was to be hassled while on a break from the fighting by some MP about our appearance or minor behavioral infraction. This in fact happened with regularity to our troops. I remember a particularly humorous occasion where we had an opportunity to help a few of our supply troops better understand the rigors of combat. While returning to our unit we came across a group of supply troops lounging in an area that had been taken a few days before. There was German ordinance all over the place and German trench emplacements and pill boxes. Four of us let loose with a barrage of German smoke and percussion grenades as well as rifle fire down the face of a hill away from but in the vicinity of where the supply troops were resting. General pandemonium broke out. The supply guys panicked and went screaming and diving in every direction. It was really quite funny. I am sure to this day those guys are talking about the day the Germans counter-attacked. There were probably a few purple hearts issued as well from the scrapes received while seeking cover. From their reaction we were sure it was the first fire they had received. It turns out that the Germans would sometimes shorten the fuses on the hand grenades they left behind as booby traps making them one second timers rather than ten. We were surely glad to have not used the wrong ordnance.
13th IR Hurtgen 12.9.44
Eschweiler 8th div
Julich Citadel flamethrow
M Co. 13th IR Vossenack
Sometimes our guys would do things that were either incredibly heroic or stupid. I remember a German Panzer tank was in our general area. At the time we had no bazookas or tank destroyer units with us. One of our guys runs over with a BAR and starts taking shots at the tank. Needless to say he did no damage. He did, however, get the tanks attention. He comes running back diving into our area saying that he thought the tank was chasing him. As you can imagine we all took off.
Not all our time was spent in action. During one rest period I had the opportunity to meet a young French girl by the name of Jennine Merais. She was an attractive girl from a nice family. Her father was a professional boxer who kept a strict eye on his daughter. We met in the family house and each time I left he only allowed 5 minutes to say good bye. Regardless of the short visiting time it was a great respite from the grind of looking for the enemy around every corner.
As you may recall we would be given two cartons of cigarettes. Since I didn't smoke I found another good use for them. During the lull in battle I would ask the Frenchmen, who were quite familiar with the Germans in the area to seek them out and see if they wanted to surrender. The reward for doing so was my unwanted cigarettes. The Frenchmen were happy, the Germans relieved, and there were fewer Germans in our direct path.
With respect to the food we had a number of folks in the unit that fancied themselves gourmet chefs. It was common place for our guys to purloin some chickens, start a fire and boil the chicken in their helmet passing it around for all to enjoy. It was of course edible but not the best of cuisine. Sometimes in combat we would go hungry for long periods. One time I entered a German house and asked if they had any bread. I hadn't eaten at all that day. They handed me a very thin slice of bread with some jam. At that point a young child of about four came up and looked so hungry that I handed her the bread and left. The local citizens suffered greatly during this time and had little to eat. It seemed that some of our men would mess with anything that had alcohol in it. There was much drinking of calvados as well as after shave lotion and just about anything else they could get their hands on, although drunks never made for good soldiers.
One evening several of us were returning to our unit and passed a cemetery. I thought it would be a good short cut to our destination. The others chose not to go but I thought it would be all right. There had been very heavy bombing in the area as a whole including the cemetery, so in addition to the bodies of German soldiers there were disinterred bodies, skeletons and open graves. All in all an eerie sight. No doubt there were also some live Germans in the area. It was rapidly getting dark and before long I had lost my way. Navigating the huge bomb craters it took me some time to get my bearings and it soon became impossible to see my hand in front of me. As I walked I had the unpleasant feeling that I was being followed. I was relieved to find our people and made it a point to not try any shortcuts again.
I recall the kindness which some of the French families extended --- and how it was repaid with food we would inveigle from our cooks. However, on the whole, I think it is fair to say that we didn't much care for the Free French Forces which seemed to be mostly communist partisans who frequently executed German prisoners. I recall on one occasion when one of the prisoners we had taken into our custody was kicked by a FFF person. I went over and gave the Frenchman a swift kick in the ass and told him if he wanted to do that to go get his own damn prisoners --- you know, the hard way. I never shot a prisoner and wasn't going to put up with abuse of them on my watch. Perhaps you will recall the occasional German soldier who masqueraded as a civilian. I remember one who was caught and the fellow who caught him worried that the German would be shot and it weighed on his conscience.
The general chaos and confusion of battle sometimes caused causalities from friendly fire both to our troops and the civilian population. In fact, there were losses in our Division from bombing errors. I was always amazed at the many Allied bombers and fighters in the air and was also concerned that they might drop their bombs a bit short of their target. One incident I recall was a Frenchman, who rather than being glad to see us was bitter, stating the allied bombs had just killed his wife and two children. There were not many German aircraft, except at night sometimes, and then what a racket our AA guns made.
Aside from the pill boxes that faced the ocean, many of which were relatively unscathed by Allied bombardment, the Germans also had numerous small forts that were designed to look like houses and even had windows painted on them. I also recall that we had those tanks with a roller and attachments that thrashed the ground to explode mines along main routes of attack. We came across lots of German ammo. In fact, at Cherbourg a large ammo dump blew up with disastrous results for the US soldiers stacking the ammo.
We were surprised at the large number of German military papers we found that were signed by the highest German leaders, including Hitler himself. These would undoubtedly have made great collectors items.
The winter of 1944/1945 was extremely cold. I remember a group of us attempting to keep our hands warm around a mortar tube while launching a mortar attack on German positions. We were not adequately sheltered and our clothing was not the best. Because they were so worn and torn we often turned our field jackets inside out. On one occasion we received an inspection from General Eisenhower. He asked us if we were wearing a new type of field jacket. When we told him that we turned them inside out because they were so worn he became flushed and ordered that we be issued new jackets immediately, which we were. We were asked to fight under the most appalling of conditions and rarely did anyone get a break due to illness or fatigue. I recall one time marching through a town. I must have had a temperature of 103 and was really quite ill. I lay down unnoticed and was awoken by local citizens. I got up and ran to catch up to my unit. It seemed like we had to go on under any and all conditions.
I always felt a twinge of sadness when a soldier of either side was killed knowing that their families did not know that on this day their relative was no more. And how they passed was also disturbing. One instance which is etched in my memory was when one of our people passed on with a piece of cloth torn from the lapel of his jacket in his mouth. Evidently, he had bitten his jacket from the pain and ripped the cloth away from the agony of his wounds.
I know you will recall the fighting in the forests. The bullets hit the trees so fast and furiously that they sounded like rain and the shelling like thunder. We would stand up and hug the trees for protection from the incessant German artillery air bursts. I have hearing problems to this day, which I believe was caused by the German 88 shelling in German forests and cities. Perhaps you remember the deer in the forest. I felt sorry for them running in all directions to evade the considerable firing. Maybe that was because they were also under fire. The forest fighting at times was cat and mouse with no clear lines of demarcation. One time in the forest there were two of us and we noticed that two German soldiers were stalking us and trying to get a bead on us through the trees. When we joined the game they decided not to play and disappeared. It was a deadly game indeed and one that you could never get comfortable with.
We shot the Germans because we were compelled to do so. But it was never something that caused me or others elation. It fell close to home as we were engaged against people that in many cases shared our same cultural and religious background. Up to 35 percent of US forces were of German extraction.
I don't believe the German civilians had many sheets for their beds because where some buildings were still intact sheets hung from every window. There was rubble everywhere piled on both sides of the street from the bombings. Included in the rubble were lots of things of value to German families and not infrequently family photos of past and happier times. In almost every German house entered were photos of fathers and sons in German uniform draped in black. One old German told me he had lost all four of his sons. One time a German woman was all tears, said her husband, a soldier, had just been killed in a nearby field. We were always very cognizant of the now and hereafter when our company was mustered after a battle and the names were read of those no longer with us.
As you know the Eighth Division took more prisoners than any other unit. I remember on one occasion another fellow and I were on patrol and had captured some Germans who then advised us that more wanted to surrender. It seemed like a whole company came out. As we marched the prisoners toward our position our people must have thought it was a counter attack and commenced firing until someone recognized that we were bringing in prisoners. We were quite grateful that no one was hit but the silly part was when we were asked if we had searched them --- sure --- two men searching 50-60 Germans. On another occasion I had a German prisoner and we were under shell fire. I thought he might get up and run so I told him to face about, which he did, and he then buried his face in his hands. When he looked up I realized he had been crying as he thought I was going to shoot him. I never shot a prisoner and it was sad to see that this person thought I was going to do him in. On one occasion when we had several German prisoners. We were so tired that we agreed to take turns napping while the other guarded the prisoners. A few minutes into my nap I awoke suddenly to find that the Germans as well as my comrade were asleep.
I was totally appalled at the total destruction in Aachen and Cologne, and numerous other cities and towns --- mostly from the bombing. I remember how frightened and hungry the people looked, a dead person around every corner and the pervasive smell of decaying bodies not removed from bombed buildings.
I did my best to help wounded men on either side. On one occasion when fighting from house to house I entered one house and encountered a badly wounded German soldier who was evidently shot in the stomach. A German girl had somehow extracted one bullet. They asked if I could help. I went back to our position under fire, got a stretcher and gathered up three elderly Germans to assist. The German girl made a red cross by tacking a piece of white cloth to a stick to which she painted on a red cross from a child's water color set. All the way back the Germans tried to pick me off with bullets zinging by my head and at my feet. I caught heck from our CO for endangering myself to retrieve a wounded German soldier. Then to top it off one of the German civilians who had placed a pillow under the wounded German's head came to me to ask if he could get it back. I couldn't believe with all the carnage going on that he was worried about his pillow.
One day we were on patrol and a German patrol crossed our path in a field and did not see us. Lt. Escabar turned to me and said "what do we do now?" My response was either get them or leave. We did go after them and after a short firefight took some prisoners. Again it was never comfortable to shoot at our fellow human beings and then ask God for forgiveness.
One afternoon our platoon was moving through a heavily wooded area and there was a house ahead and I was told to go forward and see what or who was in the house. I walked slowly praying when I got close to the house. I jumped over a wall and bounded into the house only to find it empty. Except for German helmets, boxes of ammo and other gear. I remember seeing on a table a German Iron Cross. The Germans had very hastily departed. They had let me approach the house but opened very heavy fire on our fellows so there I stayed looking for a target to fire at until the firing ended and then rejoined our unit. So being in front wasn't always the worst assignment.
On another occasion I came across a young German girl, (Said her name was Trudy), 14 years old, with her shoulder bone exposed from a very serious wound. I gave her some of my sulfa and took her to a German house. The lady of the house hesitated taking her in until I prodded her with my rifle --- her husband, an elderly man, came upon the scene --- and when I explained that a young German girl needed assistance he popped his wife and welcomed the wounded girl --- I later called at the house and they indicated that she was in bad shape and they would try to find a German doctor to help her.
You may recall how infrequently we got an orange. Well I was pretty miffed when one of our fellows stole mine.
On another occasion after a fire fight most of the morning I entered a bunker where hundreds of Germans were huddled. A German woman came to me with an infant which had been hit by shrapnel severing three fingers and hitting it in the eye. She asked if I could help her baby. I took the baby to the battalion surgeon who removed the baby's eye and dressed its wounds. I was exhausted from lack of sleep. With the exception of cat naps I had not slept in 4 or 5 days. I went back to the area and entered an unoccupied house. I remember there was a bed in the corner on the top floor. I lay down and fell asleep. Twice I felt as tough there was a hand on my chest. In spite of my extreme fatigue I went down stairs to see who had awakened me. I had no sooner gotten outside than a shell hit the house tearing it to pieces. The bed I had lain in a few moments before was twisted metal. To my knowledge no one had been in the house to awaken me and I often wonder why events unfold as they do. It is at times like those when you wonder if someone wasn't looking out for you.
One late afternoon I was going forward in a town to join my company when suddenly there was a whiz of bullets and shelling. The Germans must have thought there was a whole company behind me. As I lay on the cobblestone street I watched sparks spew from the shrapnel ricocheting off the cobblestone. When I got up and ducked behind a building some of our men came running back and said shells had hit a house they were in. So while I was in a very bad situation I was better off than some of my fellow comrades.
One of the most difficult times in the chaos and destruction of war can occur on a very personal level. When an opposing soldier is badly wounded and looks into your face and asks you to end his suffering --- it is one of the saddest events in a young soldiers life. Nor does it easily pass from one's memory, not at the time or all the years that follow. There is solace in prayer and hope that out future sons will not have to face such traumatic decisions.
I was wounded near Siegen in the Ruhr pocket on April 9th. On that particular morning companies A and B were sent in to engage the Germans. The Germans were hardened veterans of the Russian campaign. I was the link-up between companies A and B and we went in on line to attack. The Germans established heavy machine gun fire and had four tanks. We had no anti-tank weapons and what ensued was a real mess. We were decimated by the German tank and machine gun fire, not to mention our own shelling that was called in in an attempt to knock out the tanks. I shouted in German to the German machine gunners who were firing into our ranks "dummies, stop shooting we are already wounded" and they in fact stopped. I have often thought I would like to shake their hands for doing so as they could have continued to rake the field at will inflicting further damage. But that did not abate the heavy incoming shell fire and German counter fire as well as the small arms and automatic fire. We took heavy causalities. A German medic was trying to help all the Germans and American wounded. He came over to me and stood. While there a shell exploded shearing the large limbs of a tree falling down about us. When I got up blood was running down my nose probably from debris kicking up from the shelling. I couldn't walk well from the wounds received. It was certainly an unhappy day. About two dozen American walking wounded went down a road to escape the continual shell fire and to seek medical help. One fellow American next to me shot in the back and ashen gray stopped, lay down and passed away.
We were subsequently taken to a German hospital for treatment with their paper bandages and undisguised annoyance with us. That evening a German officer entered a medical room where about a dozen of us were placed and advised us that Lt. Gregory had expired. A few days later our tanks came through and blasted the buildings on both sides of the road. Some German medics took their rifles to defend the town. I had endeavored to dissuade them but to no avail, and I assume they were lost in the brief exchange of fire from our tanks. A lot of the German wounded who occupied the same quarters with us were inebriated from the hospital liquor stores. When men from our Division arrived all they kept asking was for their friends who had been lost in the day of the battle. I was later informed that we had suffered 34 killed and over 70 wounded in that action.
We were taken to a US field hospital and I recall the sad feeling at seeing one of our fellows who had been blinded by shrapnel, another shot through the face, as well as some paralyzed by spinal injuries. We were transported to Rheims General Hospital in France, then to the 310th hospital in England and by the hospital ship Chateau Terrie to Holloran General hospital on Staten Island New York and then to a military hosipital in Utica New York. It was the best time I had in the service.
Life has been rewarding for me. I have appreciated the time given to me to try and accomplish constructive endeavors of benefit to society. Upon discharge I took some refresher courses and then went on to college under P.L. 16 at Redlands University, California. I have 4 children and 8 grandchildren. I am still active in business development endeavoring to have manufactured and marketed a tracking device using GPS and other sophisticated methods to locate lost or abducted children. I truly hope that our children or grandchildren will never have to witness the scenes we did during that trying period in our lives.
This summer my eldest son and his son visited Europe with the 28th Regiment --- visiting battle sites. If it had been the 13th I might have gone. In any event he said they were great fellows but quite emotional visiting the places of battle and cemeteries. Its really not easy reciting a few small incidents that took place over a half century ago --- but you are free to use them if they are of value to you. I've tried to avoid the truly unpleasant incidents in that timeframe. All in all during that time I tried my best to behave in a humane manner and with God's help accomplished my objective.
Someday perhaps we can meet and talk of things past, present and future and of future hopes for our country, children and grandchildren.
----- Joseph Salzano
The following is a snippet from an e-mail from Joe sent to this webmaster on 4 August 2004:
A long time ago in my life an incident is remembered during the tragic day's of W.W.2. One afternoon after a heavy fire fight there were dozens of civilians in a bunker and one old gentlemen asked me if the shooting was over with. I replied that it was for the time being and then I asked if there were any weapons in the area. He then beckoned me to his nearby home accompanied by his handsome young son of about ten years old. Upon entering he instructed his son to fetch an elaborate dagger that was hidden in a stove and the old fellow handed it to me and said it belonged to his older son who had fallen in Russia. There were tears in the eyes of the old man as well as his son. My response was that he keep the dagger in remembrance of his son. I think I felt as sad as these two human beings. I mention this incident for those who may think war is conducted against objects and not human beings.
----- Joseph Salzano
Mr. Joseph Salzano
23 June 2005
13th Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division
Huertgen Forest Survivor -- World War II Veteran
United States Army
Adversaries of the 8th Infantry Division
Some Stories and View Points from the German Side
Following the receipt of the letter above, Mr. Salzano offered to allow us the use of the following information. The next segments portray images of the adversary -- the German side of the bloody battles that the 8th Infantry Division took part in.
Joe Salzano, 8th Infantry Division, 13th Regiment
47th Volks Grenadier Division at the Western Front
Experiences of Johann Trostorf & Wilhelm Brvenich
Memories of Hubert Gees
Selections from the History of 363rd Infantry Division
Miscellaneous German Units
Interested in some background information?
Check out the related links below...
8th Infantry Division
Combat Chronicle: 8th Infantry Division
Combat History of the 8th Infantry Division in WWII
Personal Stories from the 8th Infantry Division
Chronology of the 8th Infantry Division
Divisional Information: 8th Infantry Division
Historiography of the Huertgen Forest Campaign 1944-1945
The Battle of the Huertgen Forest
American Battle Monuments Commission: WWII Honor Roll
Information and photographs were generously provided to World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words by Mr. Joseph Salzano of Rockville, Maryland. Our sincerest THANKS for allowing us to share this stories!
Original Story submitted on 9 August 2003.
Story added to website on 9 August 2003.
September 5, 2002.
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